Conservatism in the United States

08.06.2021

A traditional form of conservative political thought and action has been difficult to develop here in the States because the necessary foundation blocks simply aren’t there to build them upon in many cases – those foundational elements being an identifiable group of people who have inhabited the same space of land for many generations, who share a common religion, and whose individual and collective lives are identified with their religion, with its preservation and practice every day, every year, every generation.

In many of the States, liberalism is the real religion: the worship of the individual will, his being free of restraints to do what he pleases. This is often dressed up in Christian/conservative language, but it militates against the Church, the family, and all other traditional forms of authority and identity. The disestablishment of the Church and untrammeled freedom of religious exercise by the individual in particular undercut Christian norms. For religious pluralism leads to indifference to the Truth, and on to agnosticism and atheism (to paraphrase Aleksander Solzhenitsyn). The fact that so many who call themselves conservatives (e.g., the late Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Donald Trump, folks at National Review magazine) in the States have firmly embraced the deviancy of the sexual revolution – whether drag queen story hour or LGBT voters or etc. – shows how antithetical ‘mainstream conservatism’ in the States is to true, Christian-based conservatism.

The liberal ideal masquerading as conservatism also destroys the idea of identity rooted in an historical kin-group occupying the same land for generations. For the liberal it is enough to ‘pledge allegiance’ to certain abstract propositions to become a full member of ‘America’. It therefore becomes impossible to define just what an American is, as this is always shifting: being more heavily English and Celtic early on, then adding other races and ethnic groups – Africans, Spanish, French, Italians, Greeks, Germans, Vietnamese: The list keeps growing, and the identity harder to pin down.

Libertarian strains of conservatism make many of these same mistakes, simply carrying the individualism to further extremes. For them the government has no right to legislate morality at all, and citizenship is simply contractual. So if a government does try to establish a religion or impinge on the libertarian’s freedom in any other way, he can just become an e-citizen of some other imaginary, cyberspace micro-state. Importantly, libertarianism shares certain features with Marxism, namely the disappearance of government - and its replacement in the libertarian dreamworld eschaton by the international free market transactions of billions of free individuals.

Where libertarians do improve on the typical American ‘conservative’ is in their thoughts on warfare. They are typically of the pacifist sort, exemplified today in folks like Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell, which is a pleasant change from the neo-con aggression one often encounters on talk radio or Fox News.

There are some hopeful signs since Donald Trump’s short time as President. A more traditional sort of conservatism is beginning to take form, one more rooted in the older ideas mentioned above. The magazines The American Conservative and Chronicles both belong to this camp. But while they are improvements over the fake conservatism of American liberalism, they still err in a serious way – by placing too much emphasis on an American nation and on an American culture, both of which are mostly fictitious. To the extent that they are not, they are the imposition of the New England Yankee culture of secular materialism upon all the other States and regions of the union.

And that leads to where we will find the strongest expressions of traditional conservatism in the States: in the various ethno-regions, where an identifiable people and religion can be found.

I. New England

Since we have just mentioned Yankee New England, we will start there. The conservatism native to New England, whose ethnic foundation is in the folks of southeastern England, has been enunciated by men like Richard Henry Dana, Sr, and Fisher Ames. Mr Stephen Tippins, Jr, gives a summation of New England conservatism in his examination of Fisher Ames’s beliefs:

Ames’s philosophy can be summed up as follows: the “power of the people, if uncontroverted, is licentious and mobbish.” But if checked by a powerful and well-led state, a more virtuous citizenry could be procured, one that feels a “love of country diffused through the Society and ardent in each individual, that would dispose, or rather impel every one to do or suffer much for his country, and permit no one to do anything against it.”

He realized, however, that a republican state cannot coincide with a democratic state—into which he perceived us slipping—and a democratic state cannot nurture a more virtuous citizenry. “A democratick society will soon find its morals the incumbrance of its race, the surly companion of its licentious joys. . . . In a word there will not be morals without justice; and though justice might possibly support a democracy, yet a democracy cannot possibly support justice.”

He warned of “schemes of an abolition of debts and an equal distribution of property” that would be “pursued with unremitting industry.” For Ames, the truth was that “our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratick for liberty. What is to become of it? He who made it best knows. Its vice will govern it, by practising upon its folly. This is ordained for democracies.”

This bleak prophecy sounds irredeemably pessimistic. Yet the skull grinned. “Our disease,” Ames wrote,

is democracy. It is not the skin that festers—our very bones are carious and their marrow blackens with gangrene. Which rogues shall be first, is of no moment—our republicanism must die, and I am sorry for it. . . . Nevertheless, though I indulge no hopes, I derive much entertainment from the squabbles in Madam Liberty’s family. After so many liberties have been taken with her, I presume she is no longer a miss and a virgin, though she may still be a goddess. . . .

Unfortunately, beliefs of this sort were always in the minority in New England; the much more influential Gnostic individualism of the Pilgrims that has morphed into the much-despised American Exceptionalism/Liberalism of the present day has always been the dominant religious force in that region. It was imposed upon all the States after the War of Northern Aggression (the so-called Civil War, 1861-1865) against the South was concluded, and from there, upon much of the rest of the world.

II. Upper Midwest

Another major ethno-region where conservatism could have thrived is the upper Great Plains region. There, a great settlement of Germans and Scandinavians was established, and their native tongues and cultural institutions settled with them. Allan Carlson writes,

The Upper Midwest was also a land of hyphenated Americans. In 1900, this region counted over 26 million persons, making it the most populated census region of the country. And over 44 percent of these Americans had either both or one parent who were foreign-born. In Illinois, the figure was 51 percent; in Wisconsin, 71 percent; in Minnesota, 75 percent. In the whole of the United States, one out of every four males of voting age was foreign-born; in the Upper Mississippi Valley, nearly half were.

The dominant hyphenated groups in 1900, by any measure, were the Germans and the Scandinavians. A survey of foreign language newspapers in the United States in 1892 counted: 727 German-language newspapers (including six dailies in Milwaukee alone), 112 Scandinavian newspapers, 40 French papers, and 28 Spanish papers. The Germans were the most assertive, as well as the most numerous. In 1900, the Census Bureau counted 6,255,000 persons with both parents having been born in Germany; another 1,585,000 persons with one German-born parent; for a total of 7,820,000, over 11 percent of the United States population. Heaviest concentrations of these German-Americans were in the rural regions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. Half were Roman Catholic; a fair number of the rest belonged to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, sternly orthodox, emphasizing clerical authority, and committed to parochial schools using the German tongue. In 1899, the United States Congress recognized the political potency of this ethnic bloc and formally chartered the National German Alliance, dedicated to the promotion of German culture in America. More aggressive forms of "Germanism" were advanced by the Educational Alliance for the Preservation of German Culture in Foreign Lands.

This is promising, but unfortunately it too fell victim to the American liberalism rampaging through the land. Mr Carlson relates in the same essay,

By 1914, however, a "Midwest identity" of sorts was taking form, much as Kjellen had seen, one defined by small towns, agricultural pursuits, the village socialism of the early cooperatives, and a distrust of centralizing government and foreign adventuring. Strong elements from the German and Scandinavian culture and characters could be found in this mix, as could influences from the English-speaking America that produced agrarians like "Tama Jim" Wilson. From 1900 to 1914, this Midwest began to find artistic expression as well, in sculptors such as Loredo Taft; architects such as Wright and Saarinen; artists such as Wood, Sandzen, and Benton; poets such as Lindsay, Sandburg, and Masters; and novelists such as Ole Rolvaag.

But this distinctive regional "America" lasted barely four decades, dying as a coherent entity sometime in the early 1950's. Space does not allow me a detailed review of this demise, but I would offer a few thoughts. Certainly, the technological revolution stimulated by the internal combustion engine played a role, after 1920, in destabilizing the labor-intensive agrarian economy on which this unique "Middle West" partially depended. Another material factor pushing for change was the relatively low return of agricultural product to capital, which diverted ever more wealth into industrial investment, stimulating in turn the vast expansion of cities such as Chicago and Detroit, pressing ever deeper into the countryside. But inept government agricultural policy played a more crucial role. Wage, price, and production controls imposed during wartime in 1917-19, the rapid return to a disoriented market in the 1920's, the Agricultural Adjustment Act and its clones in the 1930's, and the second forced march of agriculture into emergency or wartime socialism in the 1941-45 period left the nascent Agrarian Republic in ruins.

By the 1950's, the region was losing many of its distinguishing qualities, becoming part of the universalized New America being crafted around the burgeoning suburbs, a province of the Democratic Empire. Today, the Midwest, as such, exists in the scattered and abused villages and heavily mortgaged family farms of a backcountry, depopulated and poor.

III. Far West

When turning to the east or to the west from the Upper Midwest, one comes across ethno-regions that resemble either New England or the South, for it is from those two regions where many of their settlers came from: the more northern States tend to follow the more secular utopian, less Christian pattern of New England, taking an extreme form of atheistic hedonism in the Pacific Northwest; those to the south follow the more restrained, less sentimental, ‘hard pastoral’ (in M. E. Bradford’s words) pattern of Dixieland.

Utah is an interesting case that appears to challenge the notion that Yankee ideology can’t yield anything conservative: They have a homogenous population, a distinctive religion (Mormonism), strong families, and so on. But this is deceptive; Mr John Nichols elaborates:

Beyond the economic aspects of this Mammon-worship (seen in the movement of production into the cities and away from farms, in the colonial imposition of railroads across the prairies to the West Coast), McCarraher turns attention to the rise of the evangelical tradition and the invention and growth of Mormonism in the United States. Specifically, McCarraher traces what Herman Melville called expansionist “fantasies of powerlust” through how Mormons and evangelicals “rewrote the covenant theology of business” (p. 109). What this looked like in actual practice was “the alignment of pecuniary reason with the amazing grace of Christian divinity and the self-made entrepreneur in cahoots with the mercenary arc of the universe” (p. 109). Essentially, McCarraher describes the alignment of what would become the prosperity gospel with the centralizing, industrial economic systems growing in the United States.

While he does spend some time discussing the evangelical consumption of industrial capitalist ideology, McCarraher focuses his discussion of nineteenth-century American industrial capitalism on demonstrating the symbolic quality of the Mormon faith in the forwarding of Mammon-worship in America. In this relatively young nation that lacked nobility and an established church, McCarraher suggests that the marketplace became “what passed for fraternity” between the masses of immigrants coming to the United States full of hope and the possibility for freedom and material wealth (p. 125). Acquisition became the pecuniary eschatology of the American experiment with a doctrine of wealth inextricably tied to capital:

Like its Puritan predecessor and its evangelical antagonist, the Mormon catechism of wealth was a triune covenant theology of capital: an ontology of divine immanence; a moral economy of “stewardship” in which riches are manna from heaven; and a tale of declension, renewal, and destiny that defined a chosen people’s exceptional character. (p. 145)

In McCarraher’s analysis, not only did the Mormon ontology resemble the connection between salvation and wealth forwarded by Puritans and the emerging evangelical movement in nineteenth-century America. It also represented a “bluntly and exuberantly” materialist means of seeing and engaging with the world (p. 145). They erased distinctions between matter and the divine; instead, their belief in the eternity of matter (not created by God) became part of their eschatology: that God, once man, achieved his “limitless glory and dominion” through labor, becoming “the prototype of the self-made man” (p. 145). This meant, for McCarraher, that the Mormon religion was exquisitely and essential American in that it emerged within a context where accumulation of material was prized as something akin to a virtue—and indeed accumulation, property, and trade took an increasingly central position in Mormon culture.

This necessitated that wherever they went (after, typically, being forced out of wherever they were) Mormons would fuse “mundane business with seraphic aspiration” (p. 147). What this became, as McCarraher sees it, is Manifest Destiny on a cosmic scale, an American exceptionalism that exceeded the monumental statements in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. It was the fulfillment of the “errand into the market,” a revision of Mather’s “errand into the wilderness.” Like Weber’s analysis of the Protestant emphasis on labor blessed by God, this errand became inseparably connected with the burgeoning marketplace. This was a task begun by the Puritans and their descendants in the early days of the American nation, whose end in the Mormon theophany was to recall the people to a lucrative practice of material acquisition in unknowingly in service of Mammon. . . .

Per Mr Nichols, then, the hope of a traditional conservatism springing up from Mormon Utah is as elusive as a mirage in the western desert.

IV. The South

Which brings us to the South, mentioned briefly in the last section. Here conservatism finds the only place where it can flourish to some degree in the States. Professor M. E. Bradford defines Southern conservatism in these memorable, winged words:

Southern conservatism, as opposed to the generic American variety, is a doctrine rooted in memory, experience, and prescription rather than in goals or abstract principles. It is part of a nonnegotiable Southern identity with what it is prior to what it means. Not the consequence of dialectics or reasoning, it emerges from a historical continuum engendered by a recognizable people who have, over a long period of time, a specific set of experiences. This conservatism antedates the American Revolution, and, after much attenuation, can be found in the region to this day, legalistic, rhetorical, retrospective, defined by its past and unthinkable in any other setting than the one which shaped its unfolding. The political theory of Southern conservatism, from the seventeenth century, has been localist and legalistic: willing to acknowledge that government is natural among men—self-government, though not if organized by extrinsic or a priori ideas—and providing for the preservation of a culture and way of life grown out of its beginnings, not (in the language of I’ll Take My Stand, 1930) “poured in from the top.” Always Southern conservatism has acknowledged a precious Anglo-American continuity, a heritage preserved, first of all, through veneration of the British constitution and of institutions derived from our colonial English past and our struggle to resist presumption and high-handedness from the mother country without surrendering our patrimony as overseas Englishmen.

This conservatism is both historic and principled in not insisting on rights anterior to or separable from the context in which they originally emerged—what the Declaration of Independence says, if we read all of it and not just one sentence. No “city on a hill” to which we, as mortal men, will someday arrive is presumed by it—no New England millennium. . . .

In summary, Southern conservatism is still decentralist, opposed to concentrated authority inclined to regulate men’s lives in a fashion that is arbitrary, indifferent, self-important, and (when challenged) arrogant. Even today this doctrine continues to be antiegalitarian, as the biblical parable of the talents is antiegalitarian: opposed not only to demands for equality of condition but also to vapid generalizations concerning equality of opportunity, a circumstance which cannot be achieved even by a total submission to government: the negative equality of universal slavery. The industrial, cosmopolitan lifestyle, along with those political, scientific and managerial methods of manipulating reality so well suited to a contemporary assault on the providential order of things are also rejected, in part for reasons announced most clearly in the introduction to I’ll Take My Stand. There the Agrarians speak of religion as “our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is a sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations . . . is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent.” Modern rationalism rejected the mythopoeic vision that makes religion possible. Filtered through these distortions, God “is merely an amiable expression.” At the bottom of agrarianism is a commitment to what Richard Weaver called “the older religiousness.” In essence, it is an ontology as well as a preference for the agricultural life and an attitude that rejects most versions of the progressive, Faustian myth. Ignoring the Agrarians, many politicians and journalists predicted that the South would lose its character after the conclusion of the Second Reconstruction. They were guilty of wishful thinking.

Traditional Southern conservatism, even when blurred or mixed with other attitudes, maintains a precarious balance. On the one hand, everyone needs to be as independent as it is possible to be. Yet some will always have five talents, some three, and some only one. Therefore, responsible members of the tribe, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, parents and grandparents always have to organize the units of the human family to some formula for stewardship: a patriarchal/matriarchal arrangement with most of the operative pressure not on the state but on voluntary associations, ties of blood and friendship that are prepolitical. Certainly, this conservatism is not going to hold that liberty or human rights can exist apart from the context in which they are created and readily subsist: it is not going to accept that such values can be posited as anterior to their historical development in particular circumstances. . . .

Despite this very positive assessment, there are still dangers to traditional life in the South. The Protestantism that is so strong here brings relativism in its wake, as well as the putrefying effects of the lust for money that it awakens. But as Prof Bradford intimates, things look better for conservatives in the South than just about anywhere else in the States.

V. Native Americans

Not to be forgotten are the original inhabitants of North America. They were ill-treated by nearly all the immigrants to the States from Western Europe (save a few like William Penn and some of the missionaries from Spain and France), but some kind of peaceful co-existence with them would likely have prevented the kind of rapacious material exploitation of the land that accompanied so much of the colonial expansion in the States, whether North or South or West. For in the Native Americans one finds a pre-Modern religion that honors the earth as the mother of men, whom it is unthinkable to abuse – just as it is unthinkable to abuse one’s own human mother. This could have been an incredibly powerful check upon the spread of post-Schism Western European Mammon-worship if it had been adopted in some way by the colonists: in other words, a very great aid toward a true conservative ethos. However, despite a few intermarriages here and there and some temporary alliances, the general policy of the European crowns, the colonies, the States, and the US federal government was to destroy the culture of the Native Americans, to the point that now far too many of the latter are prisoners of the liberal hedonism of their conquerors in some form or another – substance abusers; dependent on welfare checks from a faceless bureaucracy; addicted to gambling or to the money it generates for their tribes.

VI. Tracing out a Conservative Future

In reviewing this material, the main point we wish to make is this: If a genuine conservatism is to grow up in the States, it will require one of two things: either a vast decentralization of power away from Washington City, the epicenter of the disease of liberalism, or an end to the union all-together. Conservatism cannot exist apart from the strengthening of the distinct cultures of the ethno-regions. The smothering blanket of Mammonism thrown over all the States by Washington City is destructive of this effort. And the misguided effort of conservatives to strong-arm a one-size-fits-all morality on every region through the machinery of the federal government has proven to be just as futile. As Prof Bradford said above, such things cannot be ‘poured in from the top’. They must develop organically, from the bottom up.

And it is here, in these quiet, mostly unseen organic processes, that one of the most promising events for a conservative future is developing: the spread of the Orthodox Faith in the States. The collapse of the ever-mutating Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations into modernistic irrelevance is quickening. But providentially, God has planted the Orthodox Church, the Church faithful to the Apostles, amongst us to stop our fall into the abyss if we will allow her to do so. He has even granted us great monastic strivers and equals-to-the-Apostles like Elder Ephraim of Arizona (+2019) to guide us into the Orthodox Church:

A peaceful, spiritual conqueror of America, and even a Christ-bearer, a new Christopher* Columbus, Elder Ephraim of Arizona. Thus he began the "annexation" of America to Orthodoxy. And yes, once again the Hellenism of the mighty Romiosine will once again conquer its conquerors! At a time when American civilization has conquered the world. Even our land [Greece]. But this vacuousness does not give rest, does not console, does not embrace...

It covers the inner emptiness of men by placing garbage below the rug, if not showing trying to show the garbage as treasure!

How beautiful is the video that I had seen before, which showed Elder Ephraim loading food to hasten to feed the poor, homeless and drenched people, to offer to them from the overflowing of his heart.

And behold, once again, the unity of Hesychasm with action. Our Elders and Hesychasts have a burning heart for all of creation, and thus find the way to benefit and multiply for their fellow men even material gifts, not just those spiritual!

And the little Johnny from Volos, the Athonite Elder, Hieromonk Father Ephraim of Arizona and all America, and the former Abbot of the Monastery of Philotheou, he appears to spread out and unfolded Orthodox spirituality in the epicenter of the modern world in the USA. And thus, the Athonite huts have "conquered" the world, offering indelibly the Light of Christ, Who shines upon all!

May we have his blessing!

--Stelios Koukos

Here is the greatest hope for a conservative future in the States: being united to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church, the divine-human Body of Jesus Christ Himself. In the Orthodox Church all fads and ideologies fade away as men and women, elderly and infants, boys and girls, enter into the timelessness of God’s own Life. Here, all the virtues of every people reach their highest development. Here is the true utopia, the New Eden, the new man – participating in the uncreated love and grace and light of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

All those who have ears to hear, let them hear!